Rethinking Safety Net — Part 1

Thomas L. Friedman made a comment in his op-ed piece in the New York Times on 9/28/10 to which I had an immediate negative reaction. Then I began to think, (which is a happy result after reading reasonable statements) not only about the statement, but also about my reaction.

Friedman concluded his call for a better plan from our leaders to use our diminishing resources in the most efficient way possible to get back to our core national competency, by stating some requirements needed to implement such a plan. The one that provoked my reaction was “to reduce some services — like Social Security.” Now perhaps his true meaning might have been more apparent had he stated it a little differently, i.e. using the word “reduce” conjures up images of a society insensitive to real needs of the elderly. However, what I believe to be the underlying point, that no society can afford unbridled spending on even the most justifiable programs, is valid and should be seriously considered. Instead, I immediately wanted to dispute it. I wonder why.

One probable reason is my fast approaching eligibility for Social Security payments. As most people do, I feel that the benefits, for which I have been paying my entire working life, should become available to me as promised. Never mind the fact that politicians have been spending these payments, instead of saving them in anticipation of the needed payout, and never mind the fact that, if the truth were known, I could probably get through the rest of my life without them, I want to get that which has been promised and for which I have paid. Whether that feeling is reasonable or not is not the reason for my current musings.

It seems clear to me that the financial and political difficulties which the country faces now, and probably will face for the foreseeable future, require a new look at the entire subject of our responsibility to care for those in our society who, for whatever reason, cannot survive without help. In this process we cannot avoid some questions for which answers don’t come easily. Who are the people who should be helped? What mechanisms should be in place, not only to help them, but also to insure that the system is not abused? Who should pay for this help, and how should the funds be raised? How can we recover from the errors we have made in the past, and avoid those that have been made by other societies who have attempted to reach the same ends? I won’t pretend to have satisfactory answers for any of these questions. However, I do have thoughts about some of them that I would like to share. Reaching acceptable answers won’t be the work of a single mind, but the collaborative effort of many. Please join in with your thoughts. Since many books have been written discussing these questions, and since I have no interest in writing another, I won’t wait until my thoughts have been carefully vetted and have resulted in final conclusions, I will add them as they come to me, for better or worse.